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The Absolute Cool of Death and Horses

Finally spaghetti westerns are getting a little respect. BAM Cinematek features the subgenre this month with their, “Spaghetti for Thanksgiving” series, the title reflecting the often tongue in cheek nature of these films. The Italians, who have a history of producing genre films if not with finesse, then at least an unbridled sense of showmanship, helped rid this American mythology of its cornball sentimentality, reestablishing the importance of cool.

When Sergio Leone transposed Kurosawa’s nonchalant samurai nihilism to the western, he hit a rich vein of anti-heroics, breathing new life into a stale genre. Leone replaced talky exposition with sinister drawn-out cadences mixed with bursts of manic violence. Leone inverted the traditional relationship between man and the landscape: extreme close-ups transformed a character’s face into a terrain unto itself. The moral universe was also turned upside down. Money took primacy over virtue as the noble hero was replaced by a stoic man with no name (and thus, no social position or expectancy of one), interested only in his own gain. The international success of Leone’s films created an explosion: over 500 European westerns followed. While many were shite imitations, a handful stand out for their visceral bravado, some equal in scope and impact to Leone’s oeuvre.

The defining conceit of the spaghetti western was to accentuate its own tropes, often allowing the look and feel of the film priority over plot, character or even meaning. Casting based on physical presence became crucial. Proving this true, BAM’s series includes Death Rides a Horse and The Big Gundown; both feature Lee Van Cleef savoring the boost in his career Leone’s films granted.

Death Rides a Horse (1968) follows Bill (John Phillip Law), who, 15 years after witnessing the brutal slaying of his family, has become an expert gunslinger out for revenge. Joined by an older, mysterious gunfighter, Ryan (Van Cleef) - who imparts wisdom to the young man - Bill embarks on a quest for vengeance. Ryan, much like Lee Marvin in Point Blank also searches relentlessly for money owed by men who betrayed him. This underlines a similar capitalist critique evident in Leone’s Dollars trilogy. In fact, Death Rides a Horse basically reworks For a Few Dollars More, penned by the same screenwriter, the prolific script doctor Luciano Vincenzoni.

Director Giulio Petroni, who had just helmed, Tepepa (an Italian western featuring none other than Orson Welles), manages to inject even more grittiness into the Leone blueprint. The red tinted flashback of Bill’s family being massacred (the same device that explained motives in For a Few Dollars More) is placed at the opening, setting a darker tone. The ‘heroes’ are fearless because they’re at home in a universe of chaos. Their resulting calm is the only element of control that remains constant. Still, this does not prevent each of them from enduring savage beatings and torture at the hands of their adversaries before they can enact their revenge. This is of course, the standard right of passage for a true man of the west: to die, in a certain sense, only to convalesce and return, becoming a man again. This echoes, however perversely, the post-mortem rise of Jesus and all its attendant latent emotional energies in an audience down with such a concept – like the Italian Catholics who produced these westerns.

Law, fresh on the heels of his starring role in Mario Bava’s comic book masterpiece, Danger Diabolik, plays typically wooden/vacant while hamstrung by a distracting, far-from-credible southern drawl. With his cleft chin and classic good looks he at least looks the requisite uber-male, the perfect foil to Van Cleef’s seasoned, butt-ugly patriarch. Van Cleef, meanwhile, rules the story with his composed, laid-back swagger. Personifying cool quiet confidence with just the right amount of restraint, Van Cleef maintains effortless, Zen-like command of his domain – an admirable western Samurai.

The ambivalent morality that exists in most European westerns questions the issues of righteousness and redemption raised by the revenge motif. These issues also serve to provide a plot twist to DeathDeath strongly brings to mind Park Chan Wook’s similar take on revenge in 2003’s Old Boy. Vengeance is no longer as simple as an eye for an eye but instead is a never ending, self feeding spiral – a moral Mobius strip.

The Big Gundown (1966) was Van Cleef’s first western without Leone. He plays John Corbett, a bounty hunter with political ambitions dispatched to hunt after the Mexican bandit Cuchillo (Tomas Milian) who stands accused of rape and murder. Van Cleef is still cool as ice but this plot proves slightly more complex. All is not as it seems and the upright Corbett becomes a pawn in a power game.

The Cuban-born Milian is excellent as the cunning Cuchillo, portraying a more playful and dexterous outlaw than Eli Wallach’s Tuco in, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. As friendship develops between the hunter and the hunted, unlikely social currents are revealed. This bandit is not out simply for himself, but also concerned with the well-being of his people. Though uncredited, the screenplay is based on a story by Franco Solinas, one of the scenarists of Gilo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers and Burn.

Director Sergio Sollima seemed to specialize in films wherein socio-political conflicts are exemplified through the character’s interpersonal relationships. Sollima’s film indicts the class system for giving the upper crust the ability to buy power. He uses satire to keep the pace rollicking. Of course the spaghetti west is not complete without at least one Morricone score – both Death… and Gundown feature outstanding, percussive soundtracks from the maestro – the perfect punctuation for all that violence.

Henry Fonda turned down the role of the stranger in Leone’s, A Fistful of Dollars.”Years later he agreed to play the villain in Once Upon a Time in the West and showed up to the set wearing a moustache and brown contact lenses, thinking they would make him look more menacing., Leone made Fonda shed these machinations immediately. Fonda had been cast as the villain precisely because his four-decades –in-development ‘good guy’ image – who would think those baby blue eyes could be so mean?

My Name is Nobody (1973) was Fonda’s second (and last) Italian western. He returns to playing a good guy, Beauregard, an aging gunslinger hoping to retire peaceably in Europe. He gets lured into one more adventure by Nobody (Terence Hill), a wannabe hero who idolizes Beauregard. In other words, the grand old Hollywood west (Fonda) is on its way out as the new, audacious Italian style west (Hill) stands ready to pick up the reins.

Leone produced and provided the story, allowing his former assistant Tonino Valeri to direct. Nobody certainly has the trappings of a Leone film, especially the carefully metered opening sequence, reminiscent of, Once Upon a Time in the West. It sadly dissolves quickly into self-parody, partly in the mold of the popular Trinity series of comic westerns that made Hill famous (in Europe). There are some enjoyable Leone-esque moments but for the most part the film is a tedious misfire. Moreover, it pales in comparison to some of Valeri’s other films, such as Day of Anger (nearly identical in look and structure to Death Rides a Horse, starring Van Cleef in essentially the same role) or Price of Power (a commentary on the Kennedy assassination). At least in Nobody Fonda still manages to come off looking classy and cool in his own right, easily overshadowing Hill’s buffoonery.

As it turns out, My Name Is Nobody was wrong about the direction the west(ern) was taking. The spaghetti western’s popularity began to wane by the mid ‘70’s as new genres usurped their success. It was only natural for the Italians to try a crossover film, thus the birth of the kung-fu western. The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe (1972) is about as Grade Z as it gets. The underdog formula of the martial arts film turns the west into a world of despicable, racist incompetents. Chen Lee, as the title character, proves no leading man. Most likely he was the most readily available Asian martial arts guy they could get for their obviously low price. Living out a cartoon stereotype, Lee sports a blue kung fu suit and coolie hat. Obvious camera tricks allow him to fly through the air and vanquish the grimiest cowpokes that ever set foot in Cinecitta. Klaus Kinski shows up to chew the scenery as a maniacal bounty hunter. Hack director Mario Caiano’s former claim to fame was that he directed the first-ever Italian western, The Sign of the Coyote (1964). Bruno Nicolai provides the twangy, guitar driven score.

There does exist one really good kung fu spaghetti western, The Stranger and the Gunfighter. An actual Hong Kong/Italian co-production, it stars–who else—Lee Van Cleef. His co-star, Lo Lieh, was an authentic Hong Kong martial arts star who had achieved international status from his role in, Five Fingers of Death, the film that launched the kung fu craze stateside. Perhaps if we’re all really good, BAM will bring us both of those for Christmas next year.


David Wilentz

David Wilentz dreams in color.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2005

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